Let me be right up front with you: writing is difficult for me.
I’m not talking about article or lecture writing (both of which are also difficult, but in more specialized ways). I’m talking about writing right. Good writing. Utilizing the kind of style that would make Strunk and White proud. I’ve been guilty of almost all of the writing mistakes that make top ten lists. And what’s more, I don’t like talking about how difficult I find putting words together on a page to convey meaning.
However, I find myself wanting to talk about writing now in part because I’ve done so elsewhere this week, and in part because my department has started discussing pedagogical strategies for teaching writing to first year students. We had out first brown bag pedagogy session this week, and quite frankly it was a highlight of my entire week (yes, I realize that is mildly pathetic. What can I say? I like my colleagues). It isn’t often that I get together with colleagues to discuss teaching strategies, and I can tell you that as a new teacher I am more than a little excited for any new (or tried and true) ways of teaching first year students to write.
After the session I found myself wondering who else was talking about student writing. Turns out lots of people are talking. One of the things I find so troublesome about many of the article about student writing skills (or lack thereof) are their titles: Students Can’t Write and They Can’t Spell. While there are a myriad of great articles out there suggesting proactive ways of curtailing bad writing, the consensus tends to be the same: writing is getting worse.
I managed to miss grammatical instruction as an elementary student. I’m one of the whole language generation, which may explain both my interest in close and critical reading, as well as my need to look up what the future anterior actually means. Or, perhaps the wholes–I mean holes–in my writing education are a result of moving from the Canadian education system to the American one as an elementary student: I simply slipped through some cracks and missed the joy that is sentence diagramming in both countries (& yes, I do actually mean joy). And while I managed to makeshift my own grammatical education (mostly through university Italian language classes: absolutamente fantastico! Grazie Senor Sergio) I’m less interested in the whys and wherefores of how student writing has reached this point. After all, I’m not trained in elementary and high school curriculum development.
What I am interested in is this: Teaching my first year students university-level writing skills. I’m not of the mind that I shouldn’t have to teach grammar or essay structure for that matter (though, of course, I would rather spend the entirety of class time discussing literary scholarship of higher orders). The fact of the matter is that I spend a goodly portion of time on writing instruction. Here’s what I do in addition to lecturing about literary interpretation (bearing in mind this is for a first year course that fulfills my university’s writing requirement):
1. Assess individual student abilities. On the first day of class I ask them to respond in writing to three questions: Why are you taking this course? What do you hope to learn? What is the last book you read for fun? These questions are in part to help me remember my student’s names, but also to help me get a preliminary sense of writing abilities.
2. Develop a class-specific top 10 list: after the first set of essays are due I go through and select examples of the most common writing errors. We workshop these in 15 minute slots each week.
3. Devote 15 minutes of class time per week to Grammar Slammers.
4. Twice a semester we run peer-editing sessions as a part of the revisions process for essays. I do this because I think it is important for students to start to talk to each other about writing, and because I’ve always wanted to have a writing group myself. It works really, really well. There are many resources online that can help you construct a peer-editing session. I use the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s writing resources as a template, but that’s mostly an Alma matter fidelity thing.
I also feel quite certain that students would learn by osmosis if I had The Oatmeal‘s entire poster series in my office. So if you’re wondering what to get me for Christmas…
What about you, readers? What are your proactive strategies for teaching first year writing?